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Islamic State Beheadings Beget Beheadings

Of the many acts of violence perpetrated in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State, none have captured the imagination or terrified the public like the gruesome videos showing masked terrorists beheading unarmed Western captives. Now, a new video apparently showing the beheading of a French citizen by an Algerian militant group demonstrates that the ...

Jean Christophe / AFP
Jean Christophe / AFP

Of the many acts of violence perpetrated in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State, none have captured the imagination or terrified the public like the gruesome videos showing masked terrorists beheading unarmed Western captives. Now, a new video apparently showing the beheading of a French citizen by an Algerian militant group demonstrates that the Islamic State’s violent propaganda techniques are spreading and attracting new followers.

The video, which surfaced publicly Wednesday, apparently shows the murder of Herve Gourdel, 55, who was kidnapped by the group Jund al-Khilafah four days ago while traveling in northeastern Algeria. The group had promised to kill Gourdel if the French military didn’t halt its airstrikes on the Islamic State in Iraq. The self-proclaimed Islamic State gave the U.S. and British governments the same ultimatum before beheading two American journalists and an Englishman.

Just before Goudel is killed, a masked speaker recounts a list of grievances against the French government that have been made by other Islamist groups, as well. He rails against what he claims is France’s attack against Islam and Muslims, citing its military campaign in Mali and a ban on wearing the hijab in France. The killer justifies Gourdel’s murder in defense of "our beloved state" — meaning the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL — and declares obedience to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader.

French authorities have confirmed the video’s authenticity.

Jund al-Khilafah, or Soldiers of the Caliphate, is new on the militant scene. The group only announced itself and aligned with the Islamic State earlier this month. This is its first known beheading video and the real purpose of Gourdel’s gruesome murder may be proving the group’s bona fides publicly and demonstrating that the Islamic State has attracted support far from Iraq and Syria.

There are other signs that the Islamic State’s beheading ritual is spreading. Just last week, Australian authorities conducted raids in two cities to round up ISIS-linked extremists who were allegedly planning a beheading spree, randomly killing civilians in a declaration of allegiance. And in the Philippines, the Islamist group Abu Sayyaf, which was established in the early 1990s, has also hitched its violence to the Islamic State and is threatening to kill two German citizens it kidnapped in April. (The German Foreign Ministry on Wednesday confirmed that Germans have been abducted.) Abu Sayyaf is demanding ransom, another ISIS tactic that has helped make it the world’s wealthiest Islamist extremist outfit.

Beheading is a form of murder so repugnant that even al Qaeda, which severed ties with the Islamic State, has rejected it. But the videos pack a powerful propaganda punch and have become an ISIS hallmark. Experts believe that the terror group is holding at least two more Americans, as well as two British hostages.

"It’s too early to tell how popular this technique is going to become," said Thomas Jocelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and senior editor of the Long War Journal, a publication that focuses on counterterrorism. Al Qaeda has specifically rejected beheadings because it believes they alienate and offend Muslims, and because the videos may turn away more new recruits than they attract, Jocelyn said.

"Videos like these get the hotheads, the psychopaths, but al Qaeda believes they won’t attract the more ideologically minded people who will be committed to the cause," he said.  

The Islamic State clearly feels otherwise.

Kate Brannen and John Hudson contributed reporting.

 Twitter: @shaneharris

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